Lighting giant chandelier in Cleveland's Playhouse Square prompts thoughts on the theater district

Reporter celebrates Cleveland's Playhouse Square

CLEVELAND - It had to be the most beautiful room in which I had ever walked.  Not only were the marble steps and columns opulent, so, too, was the ceiling. It was palatial in every way. For a kid growing up in a Cleveland middle-class neighborhood, to walk into the theaters of Playhouse Square was akin to walking into Buckingham Palace or the White House.

Of course in my pre-teen years, I had never seen Buckingham Palace or the White House face-to-face, but I had seen photographs of those places. 

But Lowe's Theater in Cleveland's Playhouse Square was no photograph. This was the real thing as my parents and I found our seats to see the movie, "Cinerama Holiday," which was shown on a huge screen that covered the entire stage and on its ends curved toward the audience.

The effect gave the viewer the feeling he was really in the scene, riding a rollercoaster and lashed to a raft bouncing through the rough waters of a rapids on a crooking river. In the late 1950s, with a ticket purchased by my parents who were with me, this marked my first time in a theater in Playhouse Square, which beginning in 1921 was a showplace for live theater, musical entertainment, and movies. Cleveland was on the circuit of big-name entertainment by acts which were nationally and internationally known.

The history of who played the Palace, Ohio, State and Allen Theaters was evident. There were photographs and billings of coming attractions and acts.  For me, it was a theatrical wonderland. Not only did "Cinerama Holiday" thoroughly entertain me, so did the State Theater itself.  It was just a beginning. There would be many more visits to the four major theaters of Playhouse Square on Euclid Avenue and to the Hanna Theater which was a few yards away on East 14th Street.

A few years later, the theaters fell into decay as much of the population of Cleveland moved to the suburbs and took their money with them. The big acts were longer coming to PlayhouseSquare and neither were the big movies.  The theaters were deteriorating. By then I had moved away from Northeast Ohio, unaware of the gravity of the theaters' demise.

When I returned to work in television in 1979, I covered stories of how the rains had seeped through to the ceilings and began to destroy what had been so opulent decades before. However, I conducted several interviews with Ray Shepardson who was one of the key people who pushed to bring the theaters back to prominence. 

"Everything was grand about him; everything about him was bigger than life," said Gina Vernaci, senior vice president of Playhouse Square. "He had the passion and the vocabulary to help people see the possibilities."

It took a lot of passion and vocabulary to save PlayhouseSquare because it was 96 hours from becoming a pile of rubble which could not have been reconstructed. In the late 1970s, there were plans to tear down the theaters, with their 10,000 seats, and turn the prime area of historic Euclid Avenue into a parking lot. 

Shepardson, an employee of the Cleveland Public Schools System, was looking for a place to hold a big meeting.  When he saw the theaters of PlayhouseSquare and how they had deteriorated to the point where they were poised from the wrecking crew he moved to action.

Shepardson and several other people, through political maneuvering at City Hall, were able to temporarily stop the wrecking crew from pushing their equipment off Euclid Avenue across the sidewalk where the giant machines would chew apart the theaters which had stood there since 1921.

"How could somebody have thought of tearing this down?," asked Vernaci as she sat in the orchestra section of the Palace Theater.  "I think that shows you how desperate it was in the late 1960s and early 70s." From that point on, there was a concerted effort on the part of local government and individuals to raise tens of millions of dollars to bring the old theaters back to prominence. 

There were entertainment productions held in the lobbies of the old buildings to raise money.  One of them, "Stompin' At The State," I attended. It was a superb production set during the years of World War II. It drew raves as Greater Clevelanders celebrated not only the entertainment, but also the effort to keep PlayhouseSquare.

The theater complex, the second largest in the nation, had almost gone down by the wrecking crew.  But it had been saved.

Cleveland began to rethink its positions on the gemstones which were in place, but had deteriorated.  Thus began an effort which grew from PlayhouseSquare to polish those gems which had faded but could be saved. However, it took money. For PlayhouseSquare, to strip away the rot and decay and bring in artisans to duplicate what those earlier artisans had done was not cheap. They came bolstered by $40 million raised over the decades.

Vernaci, who joined PlayhouseSquare in 1974, when it was down, took a job which only guaranteed her three months employment. Undaunted, she hung in there with the entry-level

job.  "Actually, I never left," she said.  "No one officially ever told me I could stay," she added with a wry smile.  Thirty years later, as senior vice president of PlayhouseSquare, Vernaci is one of the key persons overseeing the lighting of the next historic chapter in the life of the theater complex which refused to die.

A huge chandelier with 4,200 crystals standing 20-feet tall is part of it. Hanging 44-feet above Euclid Avenue in front of the PlayhouseSquare theater district, the chandelier symbolizes the light that many people kept burning to keep the entertainment complex alive. "The beacon of light is the thing that guides us through the years," said Vernaci.

When I watch the huge chandelier come to life, I will think of the all the years of the ups, and downs and back-ups of Playhouse Square.  I will think of the dark days when the theaters were almost torn down for a parking lot.  As well, I will think back to my childhood and the first time I walked into one of the theaters and marveled at the chandeliers which hung from the ceiling. They lit my way to my seat.

The chandelier over Euclid Avenue will remind me of how wonderful are the theaters of PlayhouseSquare and how communities must finds ways to hold on the gemstones which are part of our histories and part of our daily lives.

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